Bless Thy (Philly) Soul
By Douglas Carter Beane
So I am at a very la‐di‐da cocktail party and the topic of conversation finds itself landing on Machiavelli commissioning both Leonardo Di Vinci and Michelangelo to do paintings on a wall. The “oohing” and “aahing” soon gives way to the “can you imagine being on earth in that golden era?” Well, I try not to be too smug about it, but I tell them “Yes I can because was lucky enough to be in Philadelphia in the Seventies.” That was the harmonic convergent time when the funky bass, the overproduced strings that glockenspiel all blended together to create the sound that is now lovingly referred to as “Philly Soul.” It was a shiny snappy “Diamond in the Back” disco ball of a time when the world was shaking its collective bootie to the music that was coming out of our little Lebanon Bologna and scrapple town. We really didn’t know how magical it was at the time; frankly we were too busy dancing. But it someone how seemed just common place to go out and see Phyllis Hyman, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, the Ojays, out dancing to their own music in clubs. A girl would come into some disco at midnight sing a new song, the next thing you knew it was a song called “Hot Shot” and climbing the dance charts. And wow, I held her Mylar fan when she introduced it at the Club “Equus”.
But let’s start at the beginning of the musical “Sister Act” and how it came to inhabit this luscious world. First there was a movie. Man was it great. The germ of the idea was the creation of great American Humorist Paul Rudnick and super genius producer Scott Rudin. According to Paul’s hilarious essay on the topic for the New Yorker, just about everyone in the Los Angeles phone book did a draft of the screenplay. Casting excelled with Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy and Mary Wickes, and Whoopi Goldberg simply cemented her reputation as one of the screen’s great comedic actresses. Catch it again and watch how that smile just melts your heart. A sequel was made, the DVD’s of both found themselves on the floor of a nation’s minivan. It was just a part of American culture now. A friend to turn to when things are not going well or you want to celebrate someone’s graduation or you’re stuck with nothing to do on a rainy afternoon.
But it somehow just seemed to want to continue to happen. A group of visionaries decided to dream big and turn this iconic piece into a living breathing theater piece. To do so, it certainly could not be a re‐creation of what was on the film. Creativity wouldn’t let that happen. It had to be something that was worthy of a live theater event. Our group? Multi‐Emmy winning TV writers Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, multi Oscar winning composer Alan Menken and Broadway rising star Glen Slater. Pretty classy outfit.
The first choice made by our group was the story of Deloris’s life. Whoopi was so convincing and heartbreaking as a singer whose life has chosen not to shower her with love. It happens to performers. You just sensed that her world of Reno and her Motown medleys in the lounge were about as good as she was ever going to get. But for the musical, what if the Deloris could sing – I mean REALLY let go and, as we used to say back in the seventies, just pee. And what if she was on the brink of a career, not looking back on one that didn’t happen?
The second choice was the music. The film used Deloris’s versions of old Motown and Brill building tunes. For this idea there was one immediate conflict for composer Alan Menken – he had already done the 60’s music to a fare‐thee‐well with his tremendous “Little Shop of Horrors.” Whoever came up with the idea of setting it in Philadelphia in the seventies and take advantage of the Philly soul sound deserves a complimentary cheesesteak. With onions. The music is up there with the most joyful and optimistic tunes ever created. (I know I can’t go to a birthday party for one of the kids in my daughter’s kindergarten class without hearing “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”)
Lyricist Glen Slater knew this world inside and out. The gangster boyfriend is doing songs that a witty Lou Rawls would have done in the wink of an eye. And when the bad guys sing about breaking into the convent, it’s pure Stylistics.
The third choice was the addition of the love story. What if Eddie the cop and Deloris had the hint of a little romance going?
When I was called on board by director Jerry Zaks I re‐watched the movie and then was sent the recording of the score. It hit me hard. Here was a show with a big Philly soul. That great sound of funky bases, symphonic strings and lyrics so optimistic they make you smile. How well I remembered those those happy times with the city of Philly coming into a new life. Discos and eateries and cabarets suddenly appeared, made from old buildings finding new life. In the show you’ll see the fretting of Mother Superior that her church is becoming a disco. This was more than imaginary. The number one club in Philly at the time was called Second Story and was actually a converted church, complete with light and sound systems and popcorn in the baptismal font.
There was also a remarkable success to be had, which would energize and frustrate Deloris even more. Evelyn Champagne King, was cleaning out the ladies room at Philadelphia International records, when she was overheard singing. They put her on the album “Shame” and it was number nine on the US charts. Karen Young (she of the “Hot Shot” and the Mylar fan) was working at a McDonalds. It was a remarkable time. I hope you enjoy the show and its story of people who have no business liking one another just giving way and doing so. A little comedy about the inevitability of acceptance.
As I sat there on opening night, I looked across the aisle and there was Patti LaBelle. The first time I had seen her in person was dancing at the Second Story ‐the disco made from a church. The minute Deloris gave way with Raise you voice, Miss Patti shook it like she shook it in the seventies. I felt like I was home.
SISTER ACT is singing its way to Dallas June 4-16 at the Music Hall at Fair Park and to Fort Worth June 18-23 at Bass Performance Hall.
Single tickets for the Dallas run, priced from $15-$85, are on sale now at The Box Office, 5959 Preston Royal Shopping Center in Dallas, or any Ticketmaster location; or online at www.ticketmaster.com. For groups of 10 or more, call 214-426-GROUP (4768). For full press release, click here.
Single tickets for the Fort Worth run are on sale now! Visit www.basshall.com.